Those of you who read my entry yesterday on my mother's childhood dream to build a life in America noted her courage, passion, focus, and determination in your generous comments. (Oh, your generous, generous comments!)
My mother was not the first in her family to overcome hardship. Her parents escaped Communist China in a harrowing journey, first by train from Shanghai to Guangzhou, then below decks in a smuggler's flimsy boat over the South China Sea, to make a life for themselves in Hong Kong, a British colony until 1997. They were part of the exodus of Shanghai tailors hailing from Ningbo who relocated to Hong Kong, which quickly became a city known for its bespoke industry. (Note: China ceded Hong Kong to the British in 1841, during the first Opium War. I blogged about my family history in the Opium war here.)
My mother was three years old when her family escaped Communist China to start anew in British controlled Hong Kong. While her parents faced a language barrier and discrimination (Shanghainese and Cantonese, the dialects spoken respectively in Shanghai and Hong Kong, have so little in common they might as well be called different languages), my mother and her siblings played the roles that many children of immigrants know well: translator, negotiator between old and new ways, beneficiaries of parental sacrifice, which always comes with an inherited responsibility, whether stated explicitly or not. Adversity is an amazing motivator and teacher of life lessons.
In yesterday's entry I left off with my mother's ingenuity and determination in ensuring that her children learn English. What began as a childhood dream gathered momentum as she grew into a woman with a plan. Like her parents before her, my mother is deeply skeptical of oppressive governments; she had no intention of staying in Hong Kong when it was ceded back to China in 1997 as delineated by the Treaty of Nanking.
So, she enrolled us in the Hong Kong International School, a school with an American-style curriculum, founded by Lutheran missionaries. By the time I entered Kindergarten, I understood English, thanks to the solid foundation my mother paved for me in English language preschool, Sunday school, the YMCA, English language bookstore visits, and a home tutor. But forming the strange sounds of the language still felt like an affront to my senses. On top of that, I was painfully shy around strangers. I refused to speak.
My teachers put me into the Learning Center, the international school version of an IEP, where on a regular basis, I received small group instruction in social skills, practiced reading aloud, played games, put on puppet shows and skits. Once, our teacher even brought us up to the faculty apartments adjoining the school to show us a litter of newborn pups her Cocker Spaniel had just given birth to.
Noting my reluctance to speak, the kind, patient teacher encouraged me to write stories. Afterward I would read them to her in a very quiet voice, and she would praise me, and encourage me to put on a silly costume and act out the words I had written. I loved the Babar costume best and dreamed up plot after plot involving elephants and their various family outings, conflicts with siblings, playground dramas. Even in elementary school, long before I ever heard of Aristotle, I understood that art imitates life.
Though a budding author, I had no confidence in my language ability until the year my family immigrated to America. I was ten years old, the same age my mother was when her father died. In my family's first year in America, I skipped a grade. Something in me clicked, and all the words I had been holding inside, entrusted only to the pages of my diary, came tumbling out. I never looked back.
The year I found my voice corresponded with my initiation into the role of child of new immigrants: translator, negotiator between old and new ways, beneficiary of parental sacrifice, with which came great responsibility.
In three generations, the arc of my family history spans my orphan grandmother who was not afforded the opportunity to attend school and was therefore illiterate, my mother, a high school drop out who nevertheless devoted herself to educating her children, my siblings and cousins with Bachelor's to post-doc degrees among us.
I'm pretty sure that grandma shared her stories with me because she knew I would write from the heart about them one day.